Running down the Fire Exit

Running down the Fire Exit

I remember that, before entering Hong Kong for my university study, I did a lot of research about the city,  among which the most critical information I retrieved is a thorough introduction of all the LGBTQ+ bars and clubs (referred to as gay bars onwards). Naturally, I became a regular visitor of some attractions on that list shortly after.

However, these days, visiting gar bars gives me the deja vu that I am not, in fact, living in the modern and international city of Hong Kong in 2022, but instead in some pre-stonewall dark ages.

Fight or Flight

Vibranium, the iconic gar bar, is the top choice for the younger generation of the local community when they think of a nightclub to unleash their queer nature and enjoy some charming K-pop dance at the same time. Like any other bar in Hong Kong, it is naturally heavily regulated in the age where the government and its citizens "fight the virus together" and naturally breaking the rules during its operation. For a nightclub, it is heavenly impossible to ask its guests to "wear the mask if not eating or drinking" and "eat or drink only if sitting at the table"; there are rules against the usage of tables as well - eight people at max for one table. Ironically, the definition of table leaves enough room for according execution - even though it is a tiny side table that would usually fit a sweet couple at its capacity, the clubs in Hong Kong now offer such a place for guests with a booking up to 8.

Flexible operations are not exclusive to Vibranium; most of the time, the authority turns a blind eye to them. The neighbourhood of Lan Kwai Fong, the kingdom of alcohol and cigarette, is always heavily guarded by the local police yet rarely bare any further actions from such forces. Those expatriates or locals are free to enjoy their quest through the ultimate besotted experience, even though such quest is deeply shadowed by the cities' COVID policy.

For Vibranium and its guests, the same cannot be applied in their case - the police love this gay hideaway too much that raids from them are so frequent that they become a problem to deal with for the business.

They went out of their way to position a bartender on the street down this commercial building rather than tending a bar. Every time the police patrol team shows up around the corner of Times Square, this 19-year-old boy would notice the business through the radio as soon as he spots the cars. Inside the enclave of queer energy, the DJ would turn down the music and show this piece of warning on an eye-catching red background,

"The police are about to check the license. Please follow the instruction of our staff to take temporary shelter on the 11th floor/ground level."

Credit: @n0tr2001x

The 11th floor is an outdoor terrace, hence relatively safe from the $5000 fine. However, to avoid the hassle of packing things up and squeezing their bodies under the influence of alcohol, most of the weekend dancers turn to the other option of shaking and sliding down the fire exit, which lands them directly in the back alley in the heart of Causeway Bay. After a 5-minute sewage stepping and summer sweating inside the shadow of the high-rises, the calming ringtones of the WhatsApp group chat would invite people to return.

The shift to the underground of LGBTQ+ places hints this community is experiencing worsening hardship to be seen by the greater public. We, the outrages and dressed-to-kill queers, were flighting back the deeply-rooted heterosexual hegemony and spreading the idea of gender inclusion by being seen - yet the best we do now is fleeing on the stairs.

Exclusive Gay Place

There must be a reason for all the attention that queer spaces are getting - maybe some homophobias would infiltrate the place and report "unappropriated behaviour", or worse, maybe it's the plainclothes police blending into the crowd. In order to reduce the risk of operation, some queer spaces turn to a member or invitation-only mode.

In some gay clubs, the bouncers now make sure everyone stepping through the curtain has a membership or is a friend of such membership holder. To obtain a member status, one needs to provide their Instagram, not their profile link, but the whole app running live on their phone, to the staff for review.

This review first utilises the account information - posts, stories, biography, etc., to ensure the applicant is indeed the one they are claiming to be and not an undercover agent working for the police. However, the most fabulous and intelligent way to further confirm one's queerness lies on the Discovery page. If a guest is indeed gay, Meta's advanced AI should know as good as the guest, if not better. The bouncer expects to see loads of feeds of studs, twinks or twunks for a cis-man customer and vice versa. After all these troubles, one could finally be officially certified as gay according to the bar's strict standard. Hence, if you are new to this bar, do not want to hand out your phone and have no date or partner to bring, you will be kicked out of the queue without a chance to defend your lack of gayness.

This inter discrimination was once described as sex hierarchy by Gayle Rubin - some forms of sexual expression were perceived as more charming and acceptable over the others. In the case of queers, such hierarchy is no news for us - we grade people with their appearances, diplomas, income, and sometimes in subtle details, including a particular shape of muscles or their preference for using drugs. In the case of gay bars, we segregate the community based on their level of "attachment" to the local social circle - what they look like, who are they following on social media, what kind of dating apps they are using - to prevent potential harassment. Yet, this also means that a massive part of the community, who do not fit into the standard neatly, are deprived of their right to enjoy a safe place to be who they are.

Crafted Illusion

A study before the pandemic, namely Notes towards the queer Asian city: Singapore and Hong Kong, discussed this contraction in detail. This work suggests that "Hong Kong "exemplifies the 'disjunctive logics' whereby legislation, economic and cultural policies, activism and social movement, and the myriad quotidian practices of queer subjects do not align neatly but rather contradict or complicate one other", which results in a queer space that typifies the convergent and conflictual character.

These three-way power dynamics paved a different way for queer spaces to develop compared to the "linear model of emancipation, rights, assimilation and equality exhibited in Western cities, " allowing queer spaces to reform and integrate into the local culture. The delicate balance is broken when the outbreak and the subsequent virus control policy hit, resulting in the outgoing crack on queer subjects, including queer spaces.

Yet, Hong Kong has to maintain its status as a "diverse and international" city. In fact, with authority taking the power of discourse away from the group directly representing the subject,  they can effortlessly craft a mirage of discrimination-free harmony. We have seen the government promoting their Code of Practice against Discrimination in Employment on the Ground of Sexual Orientation through advertising videos and posters on public transits; however, such code has no lawfully enforcing effect on private companies. With the Hong Kong Legislative Council taken up more by members like Junius Ho, who suggests that protecting diverse sexual orientations and identities violates the National Security Law, we are not expecting the greatest in legal terms for the LGBTQ+ community here.

Things do not look good for media spaces as well. Ten years ago, Denise wrote that "Hong Kong has not fulfilled its prediction of death, but rather thrives on premature rumours of its death to bring queerness into everyday life", while the truth is most queer media are dying out due to harsher regulations and the "queer cultural appropriation" from more prominent channels like TVB.

The resultant is a crafted illusion that queer spaces are protected by the government and preserved by mass media while this government cannot make anti-discrimination a law and mass media keep using stereotypes to portray the community.

Outro

The shift to the underground of LGBTQ+ places hints this community is experiencing worsening hardship that is not observed by the greater public. We, the outrages and dressed-to-kill queers, were fighting back the deeply-rooted heterosexual hegemony and spreading the idea of gender inclusion by being seen - yet the best we could do now is prove our identity to enter a queer space and flee on the stairs when the police pay a visit. Before 2020, the cultural activism here centred on the pink economy, gay pride events and hosting the 2022 Gay Games, and now queers are just trying to reclaim their spaces. Even worse, with this gradual shrink of queer spaces, many in our community are not alarmed yet, just like the boiling frog in the rumoured experiment.

(We can argue that even in the digital domain, the safe space reserved for the community is also shrinking. Take Apple, the largest consumer electronics provider, for example - out of some 150 LGBTQ+ related applications, 27 were censored in China, only one place behind the top one censored market Saudi Arabia. This company that plasters rainbow flags and organises parades across the U.S. is actively isolating, silencing, and oppressing LGBTQ+ people around the world as the agent of the local government, and this issue alone deserves a paper of its own.)

Hopefully, we do not go gentle into that good night.

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